Saturday, April 7, 2007

Serra tries to raise status of 'Ultimate Fighter' champs

By Lance Pugmire

Matt Serra says he has enough to worry about knowing his opponent tonight is newly crowned Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight belt holder Georges St. Pierre, considered by some the organization's most dominant fighter.

Yet, as a graduate of Spike TV's popular cable reality series "The Ultimate Fighter," Serra, 32, also takes on the task of stopping the Ultimate Fighters' winless showings in UFC title fights when he walks into the Octagon in Houston for UFC 69.

After three prior title defeats by Ultimate Fighters Kenny Florian (to lightweight champ Sean Sherk), Travis Lutter (to middleweight Anderson Silva) and Nate Quarry (to former middleweight champ Rich Franklin), one Spike TV official said some mixed martial arts fans are wondering if the show's alums are "fighters or TV stars; part of a sideshow or the real thing."

Lutter's Feb. 3 loss to Silva was damaging. By winning the middleweight finale of "The Ultimate Fighter 4," Lutter had earned a title shot against Silva. Lutter not only failed to make weight for the title fight, he lost by submission in the second round.

"Not making weight is a problem," Serra said, "but Travis had his moments in that fight. Losing to Anderson Silva is not embarrassing."

Quarry was dismissed by Franklin in a first-round knockout, and has been beset by injuries since. Florian's loss to Sherk was more respectable. He was defeated in a five-round unanimous decision.

"The title's the thing," said Kevin Kay, general manager of Spike TV, which has enjoyed high ratings with "The Ultimate Fighter." "These guys want to be the best. For athletes, being second best never feels great. It can be like being a one-hit wonder."

Pinning validation for the show's fighters on his performance tonight is something Serra said he "doesn't think of."

That might be smart.

Serra is an 11-1 underdog in Las Vegas against St. Pierre (13-1), the Canadian who has won five straight fights, including a second-round thumping of longtime welterweight champion Matt Hughes in November.

"I think the best time to fight [St. Pierre] is now," Serra said. "He looks indestructible, invincible. But I'm going to fight my fight and show a lot of people what I can do. We all know that in an MMA fight, anything can happen in the Octagon. I'm known for my jiujitsu. I'll be active on the floor, and he'll have to keep that in mind.

"I've done 80 rounds of sparring for this fight, and I'm convinced I'll pose a threat. I fought hard to get here."

Serra's title fight with St. Pierre was supposed to be the main event of the February card where Lutter disappointed, but St. Pierre sustained a knee injury in training and the date had to be postponed. Serra said he rejected a UFC offer to fight someone else in the interim, arguing, "I might not get another title shot."

Serra was raised in East Meadow, N.Y. He said he attended a school "across from the county jail, the place where I was told my fists would land me." He now owns two jiu-jitsu schools on Long Island, which are booming, he said, because of "lots of air time" on "The Ultimate Fighter 4: The Comeback."

His roots were a topic on the show, which was dedicated to veteran mixed martial arts fighters seeking a championship fight. Serra (15-4) had been defeated in 2001 by Shonie Carter with a highlight-reel spinning back-fist and also lost to respected veterans B.J. Penn and Karo Parisyan before appearing on the television show. He won the competition in November with a unanimous decision over Chris Lytle — winning $100,000, a sponsorship deal, a rare watch and a $100,000 UFC contract.

The reality series boasts impressive ratings, especially among its target demographic of males ages 18 to 34. The finale of "The Ultimate Fighter 3" drew 2.8 million viewers, Spike TV officials say, the highest-rated original telecast in the cable network's history. Another show that season outdrew more men ages 18 to 34 than competing NBA and NHL playoff games and a regular-season Major League Baseball game combined.

"The Ultimate Fighter 5" began this week.

"The original philosophy of the show was to expose fans to the sport, to show them how highly disciplined and truly athletic these guys are," Kay said. "Now that it's so popular, I think the guys we get understand that if they qualify, they get an immediate fan base, and then it's up to those fighters to build from that and win a championship. They automatically get fans involved in their story."

The show has spawned some of UFC's most talented fighters, including unbeaten welterweight Diego Sanchez, who also will fight tonight against Josh Koscheck (10-1), and unbeaten light heavyweight Michael Bisping, who will fight on the UFC 70 card later this month in England.

Yet, Kay said "Ultimate Fighter" grad Stephan Bonnar (two consecutive losses) "did not deliver and got overweight," alum Forest Griffin suffered a stunning first-round knockout loss to Keith Jardine in December and Quarry's disastrous loss to Franklin was a discouraging reality check for the reality stars.

"I don't need someone yelling at me telling me this is the most important fight of my life," Serra said. "I know if I had lost any of my last three fights, I wouldn't be in the position I am now, and I wouldn't be as well off financially.

"I look at this fight as another day of hard work. [St. Pierre] is well-rounded and dangerous. I just need to know how to counter what he gives me. Hopefully, he makes a mistake. I love being a big underdog, man. Everyone knows he beat 'the man' in his last fight. Now, he better be ready for an explosive, violent fight."

Kay said "The Ultimate Fighter" has already been validated.

"It'd be great for Matt Serra to win, but the fact that he's in a title bout [and] that Diego is lined up for a title shot — these guys have already proven they're worthy," he said. "I know one day that one of them will prove that he's a champion."


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